How Stephen Starr made Le Diplomate the hottest table in town

The night before the state dinner for French President François Hollande last month, Michelle Obama slipped out of the White House for dinner at Le Diplomate, the new French bistro on 14th Street NW. One of the perks of being first lady is not waiting two weeks to get a reservation, unlike the hopefuls still trying to score a table.

She’s not the first Washington celebrity to show up: Vice President Biden, Susan Rice, Newt Gingrich, Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Mark R. Warner, White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard and the country’s top diplomat, John F. Kerry, have all been spotted in one of the cozy leather banquettes or lingering at a sidewalk table.

On 14th Street alone, there are 72 places to eat between Thomas Circle and Florida Avenue — D.C. Council member Jack Evans counted them — and thousands more in a city filled with acclaimed chefs, interesting cuisine and affluent customers poised to spend $2.8 billion this year in D.C. bars and restaurants.

But once in a while there’s a breakout star, a place that gets the kind of attention most restaurants would kill for — that elusive, ineffable allure that fills every seat and has people willing to wait two hours for a table. Since it opened last April, Le Diplomate has been packed with a mix of politicians, hipsters, lobbyists and socialites all looking for a little vie en rose.

The bistro is the brainchild of Philadelphia restaurateur-impresario Stephen Starr, who made his fortune correctly predicting what audiences want — and even he’s surprised with the success of the Marais-inspired mob scene, his first foray into Washington. It’s not a power spot in the traditional clubby, steak-and-martini sense, nor the only French restaurant in the city.

But the guy from Philly guessed that Washington was primed for his meticulously detailed brand of theatrics. It’s not just about the food, or the wine, or the bread. What we want is an experience, this time a two-hour trip to Paris complete with crusty baguettes, steak frites and naughty pictures in the bathrooms.

Creating the experience

According to the National Restaurant Association, there were 1,423 restaurants in the District of Columbia in 2001 and 2,179 by 2012. That’s a 53 percent increase in just over a decade, and the numbers keep rising. Restaurants come and go all the time — statistics on longevity and failure rates are hard to pin down — but Washington is a growing and lucrative market.

Which brings us, and the rest of Washington, to 14th Street NW. Once the Whole Foods arrived in late 2000, the money — and the bars, restaurants, developers, little dogs and trendy furniture stores — inevitably followed. But the northeast corner of Q Street remained untouched, thanks to a vacant laundromat and uncertainty about what it would cost to clean and redevelop the property.

Starr, looking to open his first place in the District, spotted the building a few years ago. Not available, said his broker, and Starr’s search for the perfect location stalled until two years ago, when the property suddenly went back on the market. He pounced. His vision: A French bistro, just like all those charming places where Parisians linger over café and Le Figaro. Starr poured $6.5 million into a place for people who have strolled through the 5th Arrondissement and those who only know it from “Midnight in Paris.”

“Many people try to do French bistros and it just doesn’t feel right,” he explains.

“Right” began with the building itself: He wanted a free-standing, one-story building on a corner — difficult to find in D.C. — where diners could spill out onto the sidewalks. He gutted the old laundromat, keeping only the exterior walls and the upper windows. He added a green-tiled garden room with floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open in balmy weather. He sent his designer to France to buy a curved zinc bar and authentic tables and chairs from bistros around the country, rejecting knockoffs as inferior in quality. He imported old, squeaky wood floors for the upper level and worn mosaic tiles for the lower. He filled the place with French antiques and curios and covered the restroom walls with vintage French magazine clippings of nude and half-dressed women.

Starr sent chef Adam Schop to tour France and put together a menu of traditional bistro fare, which is basically comfort food with an accent: Steak and fries, beef stew, onion soup, roasted chicken, fresh shellfish. Starr put a big bread table next to the entrance, where fresh baguettes and rustic breads are sliced and rushed to tables with soft butter. He asked his mixologist to create a pre-war “American-bartender-in-Paris” cocktail list. After polling family and friends for the perfect Washington signature, he named the restaurant “Le Diplomate” after a bistro he found in the Paris neighborhood Marais a few years ago.

There were a couple miscalculations: The location isn’t convenient for D.C.’s business lunch crowd — the bistro isn’t open for breakfast or lunch, just weekend brunch — and Starr didn’t realize D.C.’s Metro system closed at midnight during the week, which made it harder to hire servers and kitchen staff.

The restaurant was packed from Day One. “When you’re at Le Diplomate, you feel like you’re sitting in Paris,” says a senior Senate staffer who’s been about a dozen times. “It transports you to a different land.” Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf lives just down the block and has watched cars from Washington, Virginia and Maryland pull up to the entrance for the past 11 months. He eats there a couple times a month, usually with friends: “If it was easier to get into, I would go more often.”

Food critics, even those determined not to fall for decor or hype, gave Starr great reviews — including three stars from The Post’s Tom Sietsema — for creating an idealized bistro experience. “I’ve heard some people call it Disney-like, but I don’t find it that way at all,” says food writer David Hagedorn, who has covered Washington’s food scene for three decades. “I’ve lived in France, I’m a Francophile and it feels right to me. It’s not corny.” Le Diplomate benefits from what Hagedorn calls the “halo effect”: If customers are swept up the minute they walk in, they’re predisposed to think favorably of everything else during the night.

Evans was so taken that he launched his campaign for mayor in front of the bistro last June. “What better place to showcase the change on 14th Street and the city than with the transformation from a vacant laundry to a fancy restaurant?” he says. “It represented everything I was running for.” The fact that it was opened by a out-of-town restaurateur was only pointed out to him after the announcement.

Starr freely admits he’s no pioneer: The neighborhood was already home to a sophisticated customer base willing to drop $100 or more on dinner for two before he moved in. “It didn’t make 14th Street hot — it was already hot — but it transformed the block,” he says. He expected his first effort in Washington to be successful, but even he’s surprised at the numbers: By its first anniversary next month, Le Diplomate will do $16 million in sales, Starr says — almost twice what his team projected and second among his holdings only to Buddakan, his blockbuster Asian-fusion restaurant in New York City.

But Starr is worried. He’s a perfectionist, so he’s always worried about something. Right now he’s worried about all the hype: “Because when the hype is so strong, it’s hard to live up to the expectation.”

From show business to food

The rap on Starr is that he’s a businessman, not a chef, and his restaurants are designed to dazzle and entertain as much, if not more, than showcase food. The fact that he’s wildly successful probably has something to do with the lack of bonhomie.

Starr, 58, fell into the food business after failing at his first love. “My goal in life was to produce movies and television,” he says. “I wanted to be Lorne Michaels. I still would like to be Lorne Michaels.”

He studied film and TV at Temple University and formed a production company, but it fizzled. He founded a comedy club in Philly and brought in comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Sandra Bernhard and Henny Youngman. He began promoting bands and concerts before selling that business to a competitor. “So the sense of entertainment and theatrics was there.”

In 1995, he started eyeing an old diner in an iffy Philly neighborhood and took it over before he knew what to do with it. “I knew it would be a cool something.” He opened Continental, the city’s first martini bar, and from the start there were lines to get in every night.

Sitting in his modest office, next to Continental, Starr explains how he went from club promoter to nationally recognized restaurateur. He relied, he says, primarily on his instinct for understanding what people want when they go out.

“It was really based primarily on me,” he says. ‘What do I want?’ ” What he wanted was a cool setting and good food, and he banked that most other people weren’t that different, no matter how successful or sophisticated. “What I did the beginning is to use common sense: I wanted to provide food that I knew people would eat: Not shoot over their heads or under them.”

Starr is obsessed with every detail. He jumps up from a booth in his newest his Philadelphia restaurant, Serpico, helmed by chef Peter Serpico, to make what to most people would be an indistinguishable adjustment to the lights. When restaurateurs “don’t pay attention to the lighting the whole experience is skewed. You don’t even know it’s the lights. You just know it doesn’t feel right,” he says.

Over the past 19 years, both Starr and the country got more adventurous about food thanks to cable cooking shows, celebrity chefs and food trucks. When he was in his 20s, Starr and his buddies went out for Chinese food or pizza; now millennials like his 22-year-old daughter are going out to eat instead of going to concerts.

The success of Continental led to a string of other Starr restaurants that transformed Philly’s food scene. He hired top chefs, like Masaharu Morimoto, and designers who turned raw space into replicas of English pubs or Asian palaces.

There were a few misses along the way, but mostly hits. Starr owns 30 restaurants in Philadelphia, New York, Atlantic City and Florida, including Parc, his $9 million French bistro on Philly’s Rittenhouse Square. It opened in 2005 but looks like it’s been there 100 years. It’s the one restaurant that Starr keeps open during snowstorms when everything else shuts down, because regulars mush through the drifts to eat there.

The next big thing

Starr and his restaurants have scooped up plenty of honors, but the food aristocracy has never been quite willing to embrace his showmanship. Starr and Serpico have been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Awards, but he doubts they’ll make the list of finalists announced later this month. Le Diplomate may be a big hit, but the tiny, chef-owned Rose’s Luxury on Capitol Hill was the only D.C. spot nominated in the Best New Restaurant category.

Starr is gambling that this bistro, like Parc, will become a Washington institution, which is the reason he signed a 22-year lease on the building. The trick to sustainability? “We just have to keep the food consistently good.” Obvious, but true: One bad experience and customers get wary; two and they move on to the next big thing.

But he wants the next big thing in Washington to be his anyway. Starr is already tossing around ideas for a second D.C. restaurant. Maybe in Georgetown, although the lack of public transportation bothers him. Maybe H Street NE. But it won’t be another French bistro.

“The restaurant that we made, I think, will last forever,” he says, which is something only a guy with a restaurant empire can say without sounding silly. “I don’t think it will ever go out of style.”

REVIEW: Le Diplomate

Roxanne Roberts is a feature writer for the Style section.
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